It’s never too soon to start thinking about college. In fact, the earlier you and your child begin college preparations, the better prepared you’ll be when the time comes to submit those ever-important applications.
“Freshman and sophomore years are when students build some of the most critical parts of their ‘high school résumé,’” says Bobbi Dempsey, author of Degrees of Desperation: The Working-Class Struggle to Pay for College. “This is the stuff that colleges will be looking at, so you want to try and do whatever you can to look good on paper and be the type of candidate the schools on your list will look for.”
Here are four ways you can help your underclassman begin preparing for college.
1. Brainstorm college plans
Now is a great time to initiate discussions about post–high school education. It’s crucial to determine your child’s mindset and knowledge base regarding higher education. Some teenagers know exactly what they want to do after high school and where they’d like to study; others haven’t even considered college yet. And that’s okay! Asking your child about their plans after high school graduation will give you a starting point for continuing the conversation in the coming years.
Now is a good time to point out links between college and employment—to talk about which jobs require college degrees, and what it takes to obtain the education necessary for certain roles. It’s also a good time for your child to begin taking stock of their talents and preferences:
- Do they prefer working alone or with others?
- Do they want to work outside or inside?
- Are they most comfortable in a rural, urban, or suburban environment?
Such reflection can help your child narrow down college and career possibilities and help them chart their path through high school. A child who is considering a career in engineering, for instance, should choose challenging math and science classes throughout high school.
2. Encourage academic excellence—but don’t push it
The grades your child achieves in their first years of high school will have a permanent effect on their overall grade point average; buckling down in junior or senior year is frequently not sufficient enough to overcome poor grades earned during freshman and sophomore year. Plus, intro courses lay the groundwork for more advanced courses later. A student who misses essential concepts in the early years of high school may struggle with advanced material down the line.
However, trying to convey that information to a 14- or 15-year-old student is tough. “The trick is not pressuring your teen for unrealistic grades,” says Joanna Nesbit, a mother of two college students and writer who covers college for U.S. News & World Report [and CollegeXpress!]. Make sure your teen knows you value effort more than final grades, and teach your child how to self-advocate and ask for help if they begin to struggle academically.
Consider your child’s tentative plans for the future as you help them chart their course through high school. Be sure you understand the high school’s graduation requirements, and find out if the school offers any Advanced Placement (AP) or dual-credit college classes. AP classes are college-level courses that students can take during high school. They can then take the corresponding AP exam, and depending on their test score, they may earn college credits for the class. Dual-credit courses are another way for students to earn college credits in high school.
“Some high schools have college programs built right into their curriculum so students can start earning college credits while still in high school,” says Leah Ingram, author of The Complete Guide to Paying for College: Save Money, Cut Costs, and Get More for Your Education Dollar. Such options can help you and your student save significant money on college tuition.
3. Get your financial facts straight
Now is the time to begin discussing how you’ll pay for college, if you haven’t already. “You need to have an honest conversation about how you, the parents, will help with college, if at all,” says Ingram. “Too many parents assume their kids understand that they won’t be paying for college or will only be paying a certain amount yet never actually have this direct conversation with their children. You need to set expectations early on.”
As painful as this discussion can be for all involved, the earlier you have it, the more time your child has to explore scholarship opportunities and build an attractive scholarship profile. Top grades, extracurricular involvement, and volunteer service are attractive to many scholarship committees. If needed, your child can apply for part-time jobs and begin saving money for college too.
This is also the time to crunch numbers. Begin by learning as much as you can about your expected family contribution (EFC)—the amount that colleges assume a family will pay. This number is calculated based on your family’s financial information and doesn’t necessarily reflect what you plan to pay toward your child’s college costs. You can use the College Board’s online EFC calculator to determine your family’s EFC.
Knowing your EFC can help you make sound college choices. “If you have a high EFC, you may be shocked to learn that many colleges won’t give merit scholarships to your student. So your students will need to target a different, less elite type of college for merit aid,” Nesbit says.
Alternately, if your EFC is low, your student may be eligible for significant financial aid. In that case, the actual cost for your child to attend a pricey private college may be far less than the list price—and in some cases, less than the cost of a public university.
4. Fit in extracurricular fun
Sports, music, theater, and other extracurricular activities aren’t only great stress-busters—they’re a good way to gain experience and attract collegiate interest.
“Many colleges and universities are looking for students who demonstrate leadership or passion, so it’s better to focus your energy on a couple of activities where you will shine, as opposed to trying to be in a dozen different things,” Dempsey says. “If you already have specific schools in mind, browse their admission websites and materials to see what they look for and how heavily they weigh things like volunteer work and leadership roles.”
These four tips will help your child have a successful, happy high school experience while laying the groundwork for college. And they can start researching their options right here on CollegeXpress!